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Building a community focused on youth empowerment

Warsan Artan is the head of operations and youth organizing at Youth Will, an organization that works to advocate for local children and young adults
Warsan Artan is the head of operations and youth organizing at Youth Will, an organization that works to advocate for local children and young adults.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

There was a wonderful community in Kenya where Warsan Artan and her family were living that demonstrated the African proverb of it taking a village to raise a child. It’s something she misses a great deal since moving to San Diego with her family in 2006, but she’s also been able to recreate it in a different way here.

As the head of operations and youth organizing for Youth Will, an organization working to empower local young people to improve programs, funding and policies for children and youth, Artan works with community leaders, elected officials and those same young people to create change.

“I love youth advocacy and helping my peers realize their power to change their circumstances, and to change our community,” she says.

Artan, 23, lives in Lemon Grove and is a recent graduate of San Diego State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science. She took some time to talk about her work at Youth Will, their programs (including a Youth Bill of Rights and a county youth budget forum), and a summer series of informational meetings and sessions to help other young people become more engaged and connected to their community.

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Q: Can you tell us a bit about your history? You came to San Diego after living in Kenya?

A: I left Kenya and came to the United States in April 2006. My family left Somalia due to the civil war and resettled in Nairobi, Kenya. Years later, in 2006, we came to San Diego under refugee status.

Q: What stands out in your memories about first arriving in the U.S.?

A: I vividly remember landing at the San Diego airport around 10 p.m. on April 21, 2006. I remember how beautiful and absolutely breathtaking the night lights in San Diego were; and I also recall the automatic realization of how different the environment and culture were.

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Q: What were some of the biggest adjustments you had to make to living here?

A: I could not speak, read or write English when I came to the United States, so getting a grasp of the language, culture and environment was an adjustment for me. I remember going to class on my first day of school and not understanding a single thing the teacher said. I sat when she pointed to a chair and followed the rest of the class when they started to line up for recess or lunch. Learning the language and getting used to the cultural differences were for sure some of the biggest adjustments for me.

What I love about Lemon Grove ...

I love the diversity in my neighborhood.

Q: Looking back on your first few years here, what kinds of things do you wish had been available to you, to make your adjustment here a bit smoother?

A: I wish my family and I had access to more resources, such as translation services. After getting a grasp of the English language, my parents would take me to doctors’ appointments, parent-teacher conferences, etc., to translate for them. I wish immigrants (both children and adults) had more access to tutoring/teaching and interpretation resources.

Q: You’re currently working with Youth Will? Tell us about this organization.

A: In 2006, due to the spike in youth violence, the San Diego community came together to find a solution. They realized that the lack of funding for youth programs has led to this tragedy, so the group came up with a plan to create a youth development office. … At the beginning of this year, that office rebranded and became Youth Will in order to create a youth-centered approach to drive the change we want to see in our community. Youth Will fights for a future where every young person has everything we need to be happy, healthy and prepared to reach our full potential.

Q: Why did you want to work with them?

A: I have been involved in student government for about two years at San Diego State University, which gave me the opportunity to not only advocate for student needs but also raise awareness and encourage political engagement. I love youth advocacy and helping my peers realize their power to change their circumstances and to change our community.

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Q: What did you hear from local youth about what they needed/wanted in order to be happy, healthy and to reach their full potential?

A: The feedback from local youth showed that we are not included in the decision-making process and because of that, our needs were not being met. This is why we created the San Diego Youth Bill of Rights, which lists the specific needs every young person in our community requires to reach their full potential.

Q: What are some examples of ways that Youth Will has been able to help local youth address that, so far?

A: Last month, we hosted our first youth budget forum for the county, in collaboration with San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher. Next up, we are hosting a youth-only presidential debate watch party on June 26 and 27 to engage youth in national politics. It’s all part of our Summer of Youth Power series, which is all about young San Diegans coming together to improve our community, the way we need it to be improved.

Q: Tell us about the Summer of Youth Power series.

A: The series features 11 youth-led meetings throughout the county that aim to unite young people to strategize on ways to bring our Youth Bill of Rights to life. (The bill focuses on 11 demands to improve policies and systems in public education and local government that were created over the course of several months by young people from all over the county.)

Each meeting will be co-hosted by local youth groups that work within a specific focus area: environmental justice, transportation, healthcare, education and more. For example, through that bill of rights for youth, local young people have demanded a safe and healthy environment with fresh air, clean water, open space and protected wildlife that can be shared with future generations. In response, our organization will have a meeting with local environmental groups to find ways to make this a reality. Other topics include culturally responsive education, sustainable housing, holistic health care, food and nutrition, restorative justice, and more. Our goal is to build solidarity amongst youth and gather information and direction for a new regional plan for child and youth development in San Diego.

Q: What would make this series a success, to you?

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A: We want to create an environment where young people can collaborate with the adults in our community to change San Diego’s public education systems and shape public policy for future generations.

Youth leadership and participation in this series will help us produce the specific targets of a new regional plan for child and youth development. They know what our needs are and allowing them to take the lead isn’t just a success for our series, it’s success for San Diego.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work at Youth Will?

A: The main challenge about my work is breaking the perception that youth don’t have power because of their age. Often times, youth doubt ourselves and our capabilities in impacting change, but through my work, I’ve come to realize that it is 100 percent the opposite: Youth hold so much power, and it’s time for us to act on it.

Q: What has been rewarding about this work?

A: I am continuously amazed by the hard work, leadership and vast potential of the youth in the San Diego community. Working with and empowering youth is, by far, the best part of my job.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: It has reinforced how much I love youth empowerment and community engagement.

Q: What is the best advice you ever received?

A: “Do something noteworthy without the expectation of being noticed” and “Be kind. Always.”

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: Most people are surprised I did not speak English when I came to the U.S.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend includes going out for brunch with friends or family, then heading to one of San Diego’s beautiful beaches or Balboa Park.


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